Monster Truck Technology

At the recent Gulf 4x4 and Off-road show, four new arrivals from the West hogged the test track, leaving their Japanese competition standing on the showroom floor. What do the crowds know that you don’t?

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  January 5, 2001

2001 models have arrived|~||~||~|It is better to travel than to arrive. At least in the Middle East, where the world's most beautiful, and daunting, terrain waits for you to explore it in a 4x4 vehicle.

Have you been flirting with the countryside from the back of an aging SUV? Notice a few new additions to the office car park? Get ready: there has never been a better time to splash out on your dream 4x4.

Established manufacturers are unveiling new models in time for 2001, and the Middle East is at the top of the list to try out the latest releases. Take the BMW X5, for example, which arrived in the Gulf second only to the United States.

Sound convincing? We thought so too. More importantly, so did the boss. Result? With time off for good behaviour, T2 tested the next generation of 4x4 vehicles for ourselves.

The first thing for the technophile to note about the 2001 models is the improvement in vehicle performance. New moves have been made to integrate steering and cooling systems. Efficient, electrical systems have begun to replace air conditioning and radiator cooling systems, once driven by serpentine belts.

Another innovation sees a hydraulically driven engine cooling fan system (HDFS) integrated with 4x4 steering to reduce, substantially, engine operating temperatures. Valeo, for example, a leading supplier of motors and actuators, is supplying a radical HDFS system for the 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Of more obvious benefit to the Middle East driver is the Hill Descent Control (HDC) system, also starting to appear in the next wave of 4x4. Just shift into Low Range and push the (invariably yellow) button on the dashboard to activate HDC. There's no need to apply the brakes — HDC automatically slows your decent for you.

||**||HDC & Steptronic transmission|~||~||~|HDC limits wheel speed based on the degree of the gradient facing you. It then applies the brakes on the downhill axle, kicking in as the situation demands. Your actual rate of descent will vary according to the gear you have selected.

But make no mistake: the car is in control. HDC kicks in as needed and is not recommended for extended bouts of Low-Range driving. However, it will be there for you whenever you face a steep downhill obstacle.

One final 4x4 component is attracting unprecedented attention from the motor industry: the automatic transmission. While the concept of high-speed automatic transmission is nothing new, the practical alternative to the 5-speed manual gearbox has traditionally been the 4-speed automatic.

But the times they are a-changing. Many 2001 models now include a 5-speed automatic transmission, and most of these boast a Steptronic variant. The emphasis here is less on torque at the bottom end and more at achieving economy at the top; in other words, better, all-round road performance from heavy duty vehicles.

The difference between 4x4 and car is fading fast. Experts point to the US, where the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) market has exploded. The RAV4, the Honda HR-V, the Freelander: all-purpose vehicles — in the domestic, not military sense — are on their way to the Middle East. Is it a car? Is it a 4x4? It's both. And tomorrow, you'll be driving it.

||**||The T2 verdict|~||~||~| Ultimately, the fabulous array of 4x4 machines that we encountered means stiffer competition for manufacturers, which can only be good news for the Middle East consumer.

However, we're well aware that this region suffers from a lack of demonstration models. It takes something special, such as the Gulf 4x4 and Off-road show, to allow the public to get a feel for the cars and make an informed decision.

The experts’ advice is simple: demand a test drive before you buy. At the very least, the response you get will provide you with a taste of the customer service that you can expect in future.

T2 Verdict: Jeep Grand Cherokee
The Grand Cherokee has undergone a cosmetic redesign; the steeply raked windshield and rounded out frame now offer a more fluid front-end than ever before. However, the Grand Cherokee has kept its distinctive seven vertical slot front grille, the hallmark of the Jeep brand.

Jeep's proprietary Quadra Drive system permanently operates four-wheel drive and delivers outstanding handling, quiet operation and a pedal feel that's near impossible to beat.

T2 Verdict: GMC Yukon
The new Yukon from GMC has taken longer than any other model to make it to the Middle East. Fortunately, it’s well worth the wait; this beast boasts 325 torque at 4000RPM.

Refined Z71 off-road technology includes high ground clearance and locking rear differential. The Yukon also made short work of our test track with its powerful five-link coil spring rear suspension. GMC has served up a unique combination of size and manoeuvrability.

T2 Verdict: Land Rover Freelander
Unlike some of the other models featured here, the Freelander has been available in Europe for some time. As you might expect, it’s gone down a storm.

The compact design is guaranteed to turn heads, especially the three-door hardback and three-door softback options, which both feature the sleek, triangular rear window. With four channel ABS, Electronic Traction Control, Hill Descent Control and Break Force Distribution, hill descents are a breeze.

T2 Verdict: BMW X5
The X5 represents BMW's first all-road vehicle. It is not, however, a conventional off-roader, nor an SUV. Instead, the X5 has forged a new category of Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV).

BMW has certainly filled a niche in the Middle East, combining the luxury of its sedans with the rugged ability of the 4x4 class. Few true off-roaders offer a similar unitary/monocoque construction and, as BMW argues, this puts the X5 way out in front in the safety stakes.

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